When former Enron Corp. executive Sherron Watkins blew the whistle internally back in 2001 on accounting irregularities within the company, she thought her revelations would make a difference.
Instead, she later discovered that then Enron Chairman Ken Lay tried to get her fired after the two met in August 2001 to discuss her findings that the gas pipeline company turned energy trading giant masked $500 million dollars of losses in 2000.
“I think when you grow up in a small town you have this optimistic sense that your actions matter,” said Watkins, who is from a small Texas community. “I was 100 percent certain that Ken Lay would look into my concerns and find out there was a real crisis on our hands. I never in my wildest dreams thought he would ignore it or try to do a whitewash investigation.”
Watkins spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at Georgia Regents University on Thursday night about helping to uncover the 2001 Enron scandal, which was the largest U.S. bankruptcy in history at that time. The story, a cautionary one about corporate fraud, dominated headlines and sent top company executives, including former Chief Executive Jeff Skilling and Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow, to prison. Lay died of a heart attack in 2006, just months before he was scheduled to be sentenced.
Watkins joined Enron in 1993 and resigned as vice president of corporate development in Nov. 2002. She has since coauthored a book, Power Failure: The Inside Story of The Collapse of Enron, and also speaks at various institutions across the country. TIME Magazine named Watkins as one of its 2002 People of the Year and she also was among those featured as Barbara Walter’s “10 Most Fascinating People of 2002.”
Watkins described the Enron workplace environment as one driven by intimidation and arrogance from company leaders.
“The oppressor of truth likes to mask things in complexity and hopes you just get so mind-numbingly bored that you move away from it,” she said. “They were swindlers.”
Those who tried to speak out against any fraudulent activity were either demoted or ignored, said Watkins, who likened Skilling’s influence over employees to that held by cult leaders Jim Jones and David Koresh. Watkins said she considered Fastow to have no moral compass.
Watkins said of company employees, “These were smart people that had stopped asking questions.”
At its core, Enron was developed in 1985 to value respect, integrity, communication and excellence. The company even touted a famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote on company products, Watkins said.
“‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,’” she recalled of the message. “Look at how many people at Enron remained silent.”
Watkins has testified before congressional committees and has received numerous honors including the Court TV Scales of Justice Award.
Before ending her speech, Watkins reminded the crowd that a company concerned with more than just its bottom line is one bound for success.
“I tell college students to look for a CEO that is in love with his company’s products and services,” she said. “You need CEOs motivated to make sure their company will be around in 20 years. If you chase money, you are going to have an empty life because there’s never enough.”